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Game Observations: Eight Takeaways From the Patriots Loss to the Bengals on Christmas Eve

The Patriots comeback bid fell short at Gillette Stadium on Saturday. 

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Gillette Stadium – The Patriots comeback bid fell short in a very predictable manner in a 22-18 loss to the Bengals on Christmas Eve at Gillette Stadium.

Our reaction to the first 40 minutes was the same as everyone else's watching the game. After last week's loss to the Raiders, they quit. They've given up on the season and the coaches, and their season ended when Chandler Jones crossed the goal line in Las Vegas.

Although they still failed to get over the hump, the Patriots at least went down fighting in the second half to claw back and make it a one-score game. Instead of letting go of the rope, what cost New England a win was situational football. Surprise, surprise. It wasn't effort or buy-in, but rather late-game execution continues to plague this team.

"I read a book called Culture Code. We fall into this thought process of this is just how the New England Patriots do. But the truth of the matter is that culture is built each year. What we've seen in the past, those were those teams, that's what they were built on, that's what they were. You have to build that. Honestly, right now we don't have that. We aren't doing that consistently enough to be behind or be in a close one and figure out three plays, two plays to decide the game."

"The team needs to continue to build that. Each game, each experience is a new experience for this team. A lot of young guys. We have a second-year quarterback. Each thing builds. We have to take those lessons and keep getting better," captain Devin McCourty told Patriots.com.

Driving down 22-18 late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Mac Jones completed a 15-yard screen pass to do-it-all weapon Marcus Jones to enter the red zone. On the ensuing plays, the Pats ran the ball four-straight times, and the final rush attempt resulted in a fumble by second-year running back Rhamondre Stevenson.

After back-to-back game-losing turnovers on offense, the players on the field need to take responsibility, and Stevenson did, saying, "probably doing more than I was supposed to do. Probably should have just went down." But the Patriots were trying to accomplish two things at once by running the ball on four-straight plays: run out the clock and score the game-winning touchdown, which head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged was the case in his post-game press conference.

"Trying to score and trying to control the clock. They used their timeouts. We had control of the clock and the field position on the last, what was it? First-down play," Belichick said.

For an offense that is ranked dead-last in red zone scoring and is trying to figure out how to win close games, these Patriots aren't equipped like the teams of old to accomplish those tasks simultaneously. Ideally, it would be nice to score the go-ahead touchdown and leave Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow no time on the clock. But executing four, five, six-straight runs in a row to accomplish that without a negative play or turnover down four points? Not this team. Just score.

Blame the players for poor ball security and late-game execution. It's a fair criticism. Still, it's also fair to ask if the coaches put the team in the best position to win in the final minutes.

The Patriots are now below .500 again with a 7-8 record, meaning they no longer control their own destiny. It's a long shot, even with wins in their final two games, but how this team competes down the stretch will be worth monitoring with an uncertain offseason on the horizon.

Here are eight takeaways as the Patriots drop to 7-8 with two games remaining in the season:

1. Powerful Play of the Game presented by Enel: Marcus Jones's 69-Yard Pick-Six Gives the Patriots Life in Third Quarter

The Patriots defense struggled mightily in the first half, but they tied a franchise record with six defensive touchdowns with two games to play in the season. This time, it flipped the game.

New England's defense had been flirting with sending the house on a zero blitz the entire game but routinely fell into coverage rather than bringing the heat. However, they finally bring all-out pressure here, and Burrow throws an ill-advised pass into the flat. Jones is playing off-coverage on purpose to keep his eyes on the quarterback and break on the football. With the pressure causing a poor decision, Jones is there and takes it back.

Although other Pats from the past have played in all three phases, Jones has been the most impactful three-phase weapon that New England's had in the Belichick era.

2. Patriots Offense Looks Unprepared for the Bengals Blitz Package, Third Down Defense

We could nitpick play sequencing to discuss issues with setting up plays, utilizing players properly, and having complementary calls to keep defenses honest. However, you need to have a level of consistency before we get to that point.

New England's passing offense on third down gets sloppier each week. Receivers are running routes that aren't sharp with poor spacing and timing based on the game situation. Plus, the Patriots lack a well-organized plan. Their play designs take receivers directly into coverage, and when the defense brings pressure, there aren't answers for the quarterback to make a play. These are bad habits due to poor coaching developed by players who are better than this, and the results speak for themselves (6-13).

Right out of the gate, the Bengals brought a third-down zero blitz where Jones searched for a quick outlet. But the receivers ran downfield routes, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson took his time getting out of the backfield (reoccurring issue). Throwaway, punt.

The same happened inside the Patriots own 20-yard line, where the Bengals showed double edge pressure with defensive backs blitzing off both edges. The Pats slid the protection to account for the backside blitzer, but if that frontside defender comes, there has to be a "hot" or quick outlet for Mac to get the ball out. But there isn't, resulting in a sack and, eventually, another punt.

New England's offense woke up in the second half to make the game interesting, but imagine if they had these things buttoned up from the start? That's the difference with this team right now.

3. Patriots QB Mac Jones Flashes Potential in Second Half After Shaky First Half

The Patriots eventually need better quarterback play than Mac Jones has given them for large stretches over the last two games. The second-year quarterback's timing in the pocket, coming off his first read quickly to get to his second before the pocket collapsed, was an issue. Still, and this isn't excuse-making, it's impossible to separate Jones's play from the mess around him.

A source of optimism is that Jones has flashed in each game, where his decisive delivery and ball placement lead to completions. Fix the rest, and then properly evaluate the QB. If Jones's play is still inconsistent at that point, you re-evaluate the quarterback position long-term.

The moments of hope came when Jones began connecting with one of his favorite targets in his rookie season, Kendrick Bourne, who has been iced out of the offense all year.

Here, the Bengals fall into cover-two, where the middle of the field is open. Mac and Bourne are on the same page, with Bourne splitting the split-safety shell up the seam, and Jones rifles a pass into tight coverage for a 32-yard completion that sets up a touchdown.

As much as you must critique his first-half performance, Jones made several high-level throws to get the Patriots back in the game late. But they need it for four quarters.

4. Patriots Make Second-Half Adjustments Defensively to Slow Down Burrow and Friends

At halftime, the Bengals had a 22-point lead and Burrow had thrown for 284 yards. The Cincinnati QB was dealing, with +0.47 expected points added per drop-back, and it looked like the Patriots didn't have an answer for the size mismatches in the secondary.

However, the Patriots made a few tweaks to how the Bengals were taking profits on shorter throws against New England's zone coverages and were winning matchups in man coverage on the perimeter. Ultimately, the players made plays and turned up their effort. But the defensive players acknowledged that they made different calls in the second half, calling more split-safety zones and being more aggressive with blitzes in man coverage.

The defense allowing three-straight scoring drives to start the game contributed to the Patriots digging themselves into too big a hole, but their second-half effort kept them in the game.

5. Patriots WR Kendrick Bourne Records First Career 100-Yard Game

One of the most perplexing developments in the Matt Patricia offense is that Bourne, an 800-yard receiver a year ago, has been phased out of this offense. Bourne's playing time has gone from 51.8% of the snaps last season to 42.3% this season while averaging just 2.5 targets compared to over four in 2021. What gives, Coach Belichick? Belichick's response to the question of why Bourne hasn't been more involved this season was, "no particular reason."

To add more context, Bourne has been very outspoken about New England's offensive coaching staff and had a few dust-ups in training camp (late to a preseason game, fighting in practice). But those missteps don't justify taking a playmaker out of the rotation.

With six catches for 100 yards and a touchdown, the Bourne we all knew existed came to play on Saturday. The Pats wideout made a spectacular toe-tapping catch in the cover-two hole to spark a New England scoring drive in the second half.

"I wasn't quite sure, but I knew I slammed my foot down, and I slammed it in bounds. That was good. Overall, with the group, it all comes down to everybody. My guys holding up [on the offensive line]. Mac making a good read and putting it in a place where I can get it. It feels good to get the momentum going more," Bourne told Patriots.com.

Since the Patriots are still technically alive in the playoff race, let's hope the coaches continue to play Bourne against the Dolphins and Bills.

6. Looking to Close Out Season Strong, Pro Bowler Matthew Judon Records Sack and Forced Fumble

Another storyline for this team down the stretch is the play of their lone Pro Bowler, Matthew Judon. Due to injuries and illness, Judon faded down the stretch in his first season with the team. Frankly, he has shown signs of the same fatigue recently. However, a sack and a forced fumble will silence the doubters this week.

There have also been discussions about the Patriots dropping Judon into coverage lately. Last week, the Pats sack artist dropped into coverage nine times and did it a few more times on Saturday. For those who aren't fans, Judon's game-changing forced Fumble came on one of those schemes. With linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley blitzing up the middle, Judon drops to replace Bentley in the coverage structure and punches the ball free from Ja'Marr Chase's grasp.

Following the game, Judon acknowledged that his forced Fumble was the type of game-altering play his team expected him to make. In other words, registering hurries and surviving in coverage is one thing. But the Pats need Judon to make high-impact plays. Consider that box checked.

7. Patriots Offensive Line Struggles With Blitz Package, But Standard Pass Protection Holds Up

We'll need to review the film to get a better feel for how things went awry against Cincinnati's blitz schemes. Watching live, it felt like more schematic breakdowns than individual failures. When the Bengals didn't blitz, Jones had mostly clean pockets. Still, four sacks are four sacks, and they must find ways to cut down on negative plays.

8. Windy and Cold Conditions Make Comeback Bid Tougher on Patriots

Who knows how the game would've ended if the Patriots only needed a field goal late in this one instead of a touchdown. Although the misses hurt the team, it was clear the weather conditions impacted the kicking game dramatically. Folk missed two extra points, while Bengals kicker Evan McPherson missed an extra point and a field goal. Those are two good kickers. It was a tough day out there.

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